Page One

Disabled residents protest Free Folk Festival

By Hank Sims Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday October 24, 2001

Members of the Commission on Disability and community activists are asking the City Council to take action against the upcoming Berkeley Free Folk Festival because they allege that Ashkenaz, one of the festival venues, in not fully accessible for people in wheelchairs. 

On Oct.15, disability commissioner, Marissa Shaw, and former commissioner, Karen Craig, sent city councilmembers a letter describing conditions at Ashkenaz. They also described the meetings among the commission, disability activists, city employees, Ashkenaz management and Suzy Thompson, organizer of the Berkeley Free Folk Festival.  

In the letter, Shaw and Craig said Ashkenaz’ entrance ramp for disabled people is inadequate. They also noted that halls leading to the bathroom are too narrow and cramped and that there is no rear fire exit.  

The City Council will discuss the issue at its regular meeting on Tuesday, but according to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the council can take no action apart from offering the organizers of the festival money to postpone the event to look for alternate locations.  

Earlier in the year, the city gave the festival a grant of $3,000. 

Thompson insisted Tuesday that the festival, scheduled for Nov. 17 and 18, will go on as planned. In addition, she said the process of trying to meet the demands of some members of the disabled community has been so exhausting that this will be her last year as festival director. 

“I’m doing the best possible job I can, and that has to be good enough,” she said. “The festival is not going to be moved this year. 

“I won’t be doing this again,” she added. “I’ve tried to put out nice things for the community, and I’ve been kicked in the teeth for it.” 

Thompson and Allan Katz, the managing director of Ashkenaz, met on Oct. 4, Thompson said, to talk about accessibility issues at the club and try to address the commission’s concerns.  

There, Shaw said, the shortcomings of Ashkenaz as a venue became clear to her.  

“It only takes about four people in wheelchairs to fill up the hallways,” she said. “If you get four people in there trying to go to the bathroom at the same time, that’s it. It’s over. 

“People in wheelchairs may be able to get in the door at Ashkenaz, but four of us shut the whole place down.” 

Thompson said such problems can be addressed by having people directing traffic in the hall. 

“The fact is that neither place (Ashkenaz nor the Freight & Salvage, the other festival location) is ideal, but it’s a lie to say that the festival is being held in completely inaccessible locations,” said Thompson. “What I’d like to do this year is spend my time setting up the two venues as best I can to make them accessible.” 

Thompson said she contacted Shaw several weeks ago to ask her if she would like to volunteer to coordinate access issues at Ashkenaz, or if she could provide information about people who could provide such a service. Thompson said Shaw refused to help her.  

Shaw said she declined to help after some consideration. She said she eventually decided she couldn’t help in good conscience when she didn’t support the choice of the venue. 

Thompson said the entire process has left her bitter. 

“In retrospect, I wish I had given the money back to the city and called this thing off,” she said. “But on the other hand, we’ve got some great music booked this year.”